The Wales team Warren Gatland should now pick to face Australia in huge second Test

Warren Gatland, head coach of Wales, on the pitch in Sydney
-Credit: (Image: Jason McCawley/Getty Images)


As Warren Gatland and Wales dust themselves down following defeat in Sydney, thoughts will immediately turn to how best to end an eight-game losing run as Wales travel to Melbourne.

The continuation of Wales’ winless 2024 only served to make proceedings frosty post-match, with the fact that the south-eastern coast of Australia is currently experiencing its coldest weather in two years unlikely to thaw things out.

Lose next week and the questions over this rebuild will only grow. So what will Gatland do to ensure that doesn’t happen at AAMI Park?

Well, the next couple of days are going to prove crucial in terms of getting the selection right.

For starters, much of who Gatland picks will be dictated by injury.

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Despite the defeat, Gatland is likely going to be thinking that the plan to beat the Wallabies was largely foiled by accuracy and errors, rather than selection. If he can, he’ll probably stick rather than twist.

But the sight of Liam Williams, Josh Hathaway, Gareth Thomas and Aaron Wainwright all picking up knocks could force his hand on that front. Frankly, if just some of those are out, it could cause some fairly big ramifications for Gatland.

Losing Williams, Thomas and Wainwright would rob Gatland of roughly half the caps from Saturday’s starting side. In particular, full-back Williams would be a severe loss of experience.

The Japan-based 15 boasted 14 caps more than the entire backline combined in Sydney, with the 33-year-old constantly talking and barking orders to his younger colleagues. Take him out of the equation and Wales are suddenly lacking in leadership behind the pack - with Wales likely to turn to six-cap Cameron Winnett should Williams be ruled out.

The same goes for Wainwright, with the 50-cap man easily Wales’ most experienced player in the pack. Once again, the Dragons’ No. 8 demonstrated his rise to near-talismanic status.

Many of the Australian journalists were taken aback by how good he was. You’d imagine they might just see him again next summer.

But whether they see him next week remains to be seen. Were he out, you’d expect James Botham to be the starter at eight, with Mackenzie Martin also an option.

There is the chance that Taine Plumtree could move to eight, especially if Ben Carter is fit. Although, after perhaps his best game for Wales so far, would Gatland want to move Chris Tshiunza from lock to blindside?

Loosehead Thomas didn’t have his finest moment in the red jersey, being pinged twice at the scrum and sent to the sin-bin after Australia’s first try.

In fairness, so much of that was down to Taniela Tupou - the try-scorer and Thomas’ tormentor at scrum-time. The Wallabies tighthead is genuinely world class, with only injuries able to usually stop him. Just imagine if he’d been fit for Lyon last year.

Either way, with Nicky Smith left at home, it’ll be interesting to see if Gatland opts for a change, regardless of Thomas’ fitness - with Kemsley Mathias and Corey Domachowski the other options.

The final injury doubt is debutant Hathaway. There were some decent moments and some understandable errors - seeing him post-match for press only served to reinforce just how young he is - but if he’s out, it begs the question who comes in.

Regan Grace is out here, but the rugby league convert has only played two friendlies for Bath in the 15-a-side code. It would be a huge call to throw him into the Test arena before playing a competitive game of union.

If Wales need wing options, then you’d imagine they’d sooner move Mason Grady there. Grady has now started the last two Tests at 12. In all honesty, unless Gatland is forced to move him from there through injuries elsewhere, the experiment will surely continue.

In fairness, it’s probably too soon to call time on the move to 12 for Grady, but it’s also true we’ve yet to see any real suggestion it’s his best position moving forward.

Gatland seemed happy with how the Cardiff man went, but Grady struggled to make an impact with ball in hand. You just feel he’s not suited to doing that at inside centre.

Were he needed on the wing, then the question would be who would replace him. Nick Tompkins is solid enough, although he was skinned for Tom Wright’s score.

Ben Thomas had a decent first start at fly-half for Wales, but he’s a centre by trade and it would be interesting to see him play there for Wales.

You certainly might create more space for Grady if you played his Cardiff team-mate as a ball-playing 12. Personally, I’d be moving Grady out to the wing and playing Sam Costelow and Thomas as your 10-12 axis.

You can still play a solid brand of rugby, but Wales need to show something - anything - in attack. Maybe that’s the way of doing it.

Of course, how much time has been spent in training with Thomas as a 12 is unknown. So, you can probably expect things to remain largely the same. If everyone is fit, it wouldn’t be out of the realms of possibility for Gatland to back that side to right some wrongs.

But if some are ruled out, things could quickly change far beyond like-for-like replacements. Might we even see a different approach in midfield as a result?

My Wales team to face Australia (brackets based on changes made if players aren’t fit): Liam Williams (Cameron Winnett); Mason Grady, Owen Watkin, Ben Thomas, Rio Dyer; Sam Costelow, Ellis Bevan; Gareth Thomas (Kemsley Mathias), Dewi Lake, Archie Griffin, Christ Tshiunza, Dafydd Jenkins, Taine Plumtree, Tommy Reffell, Aaron Wainwright (James Botham).

Replacements: Evan Lloyd, Kemsley Mathias (Corey Domachowski), Dillon Lewis, Ben Carter, James Botham (Mackenzie Martin), Kieran Hardy, Nick Tompkins, Josh Hathaway (Cameron Winnett/Jacob Beetham).